While there may be many keys to the success of your business, it’s no secret that one of the bestinvestments you can make is in your employees’ health and well-being.
Most companies have diverse employee populations with different health care needs. But one thing that all employees need to reach their personal best health is a comprehensive, innovative wellness program. If employees feel like their employer really cares about them, it will show in both employee satisfaction and retention.
But living a healthy lifestyle and achieving and maintaining an optimal state of health often depends on having the right information. That’s why delivering the right information to employees is essential.
“Small business owners have a responsibility to help their employees improve their health,” says Bill Berenson, senior vice president of Aetna’s Small and Middle Market Business for the North Central Region. “Wellness programs that give employees information and resources to enhance their health and well-being are an important way of carrying out that responsibility.”
Smart Business spoke with Berenson about wellness programs.
What are the features of a wellness program?
A wellness program can offer employees a wide variety of services such as discounts on memberships at fitness clubs or home exercise equipment, weight loss or weight management programs, smoking cessation programs, and discounts on alternative health care options, such as herbal and natural remedies, vitamins and nutritional supplements, as well as massage and acupuncture therapy. These discount programs are not insurance, but are free, added features to many insurance plans.
How can employees take advantage of wellness programs?
Employees shouldn’t underestimate the benefits of wellness offered in an employer-sponsored wellness program. One of the primary functions of health benefits is to help keep employees healthy. Employees should check to see if their plan covers annual checkups and well-woman and well-child visits. They should also check for coverage or discounts for exercise programs, smoking cessation clinics, flu shots and mental health services.
Improving our health has both immediate and long-term quality of life benefits because good health is one of the most important assets we take into our retirement years.
How can employers focus on keeping employees healthy and productive?
We believe that an integrated, total management approach is the most effective approach. We’ve seen promising results from our integration of medical, pharmacy, disability, and behavioral health benefits and programs. These programs have helped employers improve the health and productivity of their employees and reduce medical costs.
How should employees be informed about these programs?
It is important that employees be aware of programs that could be helpful to their individual, personal needs. This can be achieved by having employees complete an optional, secure health risk assessment. After completing this assessment, employees can receive a personalized action plan that points them toward programs that are specifically relevant to them. This type of targeted outreach improves the likelihood of employees taking advantage of the services that are available to them.
How can employers benefit from a wellness program?
Wellness programs and discounts won’t just help employees get healthier — they will also help maintain the ‘health’ of a successful business. Programs that promote good health can impact worker satisfaction and productivity. They can also reduce costs related to health benefit claims, sick leave, absenteeism, disability and workers’ compensation, making them an important recruiting and retention tool.
Good health is the most important driver of good quality of life. And in most cases, with a little work, it can be preserved throughout much of our lives. We encourage employees to view their health as an important, lifelong asset that they have the power to enhance and protect by getting routine preventive care and adopting healthy behaviors.
BILL BERENSON is senior vice president of Aetna’s Small and Middle Market Business for the North Central Region. Reach him at (312) 928-3323 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jason Kubasak isn’t afraid to let his 98 employees lead themselves. “I try to say, ‘Here’s our end goal. Let’s all understand what our part of it is and move toward it,’” says the CEO of D&S Communications Inc.. “Rather than make them follow me, I like for them to strive for it on their own.”
With 2006 revenue of $14 million, the employees of this privately held provider of refurbished telecommunications systems are heading in the right direction.
Smart Business spoke with Kubasak about why following up is such an integral part of communication and how understanding your customer base is a sure path to growing your business.
Q: How do you keep a business growing?
While it’s definitely great to go out and do acquisitions and marketing and try to acquire new customers, the No. 1 thing to do is to retain and build upon your existing customer base. The first and best investment of intellectual capital would be to try and understand what other services and how much more service you could be providing to the people that you’re already reaching.
Q: How do you retain customers?
Don’t promise something that you can’t deliver no matter what. If a customer leads you down that road, you have to know when to say no. You can’t say to them, ‘Yep, we can do it.
No problem.’ Ultimately, the other business that you’re doing with them will go away when you fail them on the new project.
Not overpromising, not taking on things you can’t do, and then recognizing where the areas of opportunity are with those customers and trying to be there at the same time that they’re there or before they’re there.
You tend to lose customers in transitional periods, when they go to a new product or a new person gets hired. Communicate with them: ‘Hey, if you’re making any kind of change, let me know. We might be able to accommodate you.’
Then you can retain that customer through a transition where you might normally lose them.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge in business?
Fitting in to the culture. Coming in as an outsider and trying to work with all of those people and getting them to do things that I wanted them to do rather than the way they were doing it before.
I met with all the managers individually right off the bat. I didn’t tell them anything that I wanted or anything that I expected I just asked them questions. They have a better feel for it than I’m ever going to have just walking in blind off the street. Who better to ask what would make this job easier?
The main thing that I tried to get out of them is, ‘What, if anything, is an impediment to you doing better in any area? What slows you down? What’s inefficient? What’s time-consuming that shouldn’t be?’ If you’ve got something that was a pain and I can help it go away, then you’ll be more willing to listen to me next time around.
You have to be genuinely open to listening to what they have to say. If you’re doing it as a strategy, then I don’t know if it will work as well.
Q: How do you show employees that you are actually listening?
Follow up and say, ‘Here’s what I’m doing to address your problems, and here’s the exact outcome.’ People pay attention to that. They recognize that if you follow up, you actually did take it seriously.
Most importantly, make something happen. If I say, ‘Tell me what your problems are,’ and you say, ‘Well, my laptop is all screwed up,’ I actually have to do something. I have to either say, ‘Here’s a new laptop,’ or, ‘I need to buy you some software.’
Q: How do you communicate your goals with employees?
I recently had an operations meeting with our warehouse manager, our operations manager and our repair center manager. I brought them in and showed them all visually the exact financial impact that putting one more order out every day had on the company.
Showing them the financial ramifications, it got them motivated. You don’t have to get them all wound up with rahrah kind of stuff. Just lay it out logically and say, ‘Here’s exactly what happens.’
I showed them a way of measuring it ‘Here’s the numbers. Here’s how you can go into the accounting system to see how many orders are pushed out’ and they took it from there.
If you try to just tell someone, ‘Get one extra order out every day. It will really help out,’ they’re like, ‘Well, OK. I’ll do what I can.’ Instead say, ‘Take a look at this. Here’s how it all plays out.’
HOW TO REACH: D&S Communications Inc., (847) 468-8082 or www.dscomm.com
You invest in the proper insurance protection for your business assets and liabilities. But have you considered your potential risk from the work completed by subcontractors and vendors? If these parties don’t have insurance, you could end up paying dearly for their mistakes.
“It is important that business owners know that the people doing work for them or providing products and services have insurance,” says Bob Wood, manager of the Underwriting Practices Group at Westfield Insurance. “If an uninsured contractor causes injuries or damages during a project, the owner might have liability for the contractor’s actions. This responsibility comes from the fact that the work was done for the benefit of and on behalf of the owner.”
You clearly want to reduce the risk of having your insurance company pay for the actions of other businesses that work with you. Spending a little time investigating contractors’ insurance status before you sign a deal can save you from spending a great deal of time and money after an incident.
Smart Business spoke with Wood about certificates of insurance and their role in business owner risk management practices.
What are certificates of insurance?
Certificates of insurance are documents that insured businesses can obtain to give evidence that they have insurance coverage. These certificates include information about the effective dates of the policy, the limits of liability, the insurance company providing the coverage and the certificate holder, or the entity requesting the certificate. These certificates are different than the policies that insured businesses have as a guarantee of their coverage. Businesses don’t use certificates to negotiate benefits with their insurance provider; instead they have them as a way to show other parties, like hiring companies, that they have the appropriate coverage. If the certificate of insurance and the actual policy contain different provisions, the insurance coverage will follow the specifications outlined in the actual policy.
What are potential consequences when business owners don’t collect the certificates?
As noted before, if an accident occurs and the subcontractors or vendors do not have insurance, the business owner could end up incurring the liability. This would mean additional expense for the company and potential increase in its premiums. This situation can be avoided if businesses require that the people working for them prove that they have insurance coverage.
Even if entities working for a company do have insurance coverage, not collecting certificates of insurance could still cost a business owner. When hiring companies choose not to keep records of these certificates, they are not following good risk management practices. When their insurance company audits their policy, it might charge additional premiums for the increased potential loss exposure incurred by not verifying proof of insurance. Not having a certificate of insurance doesn’t invalidate any insurance that contractors or subcontractors might carry, but it does show that business owners are exposing themselves to preventable additional risk.
How can companies obtain certificates of insurance?
Business owners can easily obtain certificates of insurance by requesting them from the subcontractors or vendors that want to work with them. These entities can, in turn, access the documentation from the insurance carrier that provides their coverage. Hiring companies should insist that they receive the certificates promptly so they can review them prior to authorizing the contractor or subcontractor to start work. Once businesses have allowed third parties to start work on a project, the contractors have less of an incentive to follow through with the documentation. Also, if uninsured businesses even begin work on a project, business owners have opened themselves up to unnecessary liability. Business owners need to use reasonable care in reviewing the certificates, but generally, they don’t need to validate the certificates of insurance.
What else should owners know?
If a contractor will perform a significant amount of work for an owner, the hiring firm should secure additional protection. Business owners should discuss contractor, subcontractor and vendor insurance requirements with their attorney prior to signing substantial contracts. The attorney can provide advice regarding limits of insurance and other terms and conditions.
One of the common recommendations for owners entering large deals with contractors is that owners should ask to be added as an additional insured on the contractor’s policy. This goes one step beyond the risk reduction provided by simply collecting a certificate of insurance. This distinction assures that the policy of the party most in control of the losses applies first. This protects hiring parties by preserving their own insurance limits and reducing their risk of loss. The certificate of insurance should outline the owner’s additional insured status.
BOB WOOD is manager of the Underwriting Practices Group at Westfield Insurance. Reach him at email@example.com or (330) 887-6883. In business for more than 158 years, Westfield Insurance provides commercial and personal insurance services to customers in 17 states. For more information, visit www.westfieldinsurance.com.
Until recently, consumers needed a crystal ball to predict the cost of certain medical services. Charges for procedures like strep tests and X-rays were a great mystery — until the bill arrived. But why should consumers remain in the dark about something as important as the cost of their health care?
Having the right information is essential when purchasing health care. Consumers should have access to the same kind of objective cost and clinical quality information that is readily available when making any kind of significant purchase, such as buying a car, house or computer.
“Consumers are taking on an increasingly active role in the overall health care process,” said Bill Berenson, senior vice president of Aetna's Small and Middle Market Business for the North Central Region. “This presents an opportunity for employers, regulators and the medical community to work in collaboration toward a more transparent system.”
Smart Business spoke with Berenson about transparency in health care and the emerging technologies that are shedding a new light on cost and quality.
What is transparency?
Health care transparency is a variety of initiatives that help people make informed health care decisions based on a number of factors, including the actual costs of care and the clinical quality and efficiency of physicians. This kind of information was not previously available to consumers, but insurers now have a responsibility to give them the information they need to make well-informed decisions about their health care. Transparency is gaining momentum as a driving force in the health industry.
Do employees benefit from price information?
Employees can benefit in many ways, as they can now learn the cost of certain medical procedures upfront. An individual planning to see a new doctor can review charges for an office visit. Parents whose child is suffering from a sore throat can find out what they can expect to pay the pediatrician for a strep test. A family preparing for flu season could learn what it can expect to pay the doctor for a flu shot. Knowing actual rates can help your employees manage their annual out-of-pocket expenses and make better decisions about how to use their benefit plans.
What kind of technology is available to help consumers gather price information?
Online tools can give consumers easy access to actual rates negotiated with doctors for the most frequently performed treatments and services. Personal Health Records (PHRs) provide online access to personal health information, including drug prescriptions, medical tests, individualized personal messages, alerts and a detailed health history that can be printed and shared with physicians. Still other tools can provide information about hospitals according to specific diagnoses and procedures, such as the number of patients treated per year, complication rates, mortality rates and length of stay. This information can help consumers decide where to access care. Integrating information and resources helps patients and their physicians make more informed decisions and better manage their health and health-related expenses.
How does transparency impact employers?
Transparency may have its biggest impact on employers as they shift toward consumer-directed plans. Giving people credible, easy-to-understand information is an essential part of the consumer-directed movement. Transparency not only provides this kind of information; it also demonstrates the insurer’s commitment to both the employer and its employees.
Price transparency is only the beginning. Patients need enough information to make decisions based on overall value, not simply price alone. Transparency efforts are expanding to provide consumers with information on quality as well as cost efficiency. The health-related choices we make for our families and ourselves are too important to make in the dark.
BILL BERENSON is senior vice president of Aetna’s Small and Middle Market Business for the North Central Region. Reach him at (312) 928-3323 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
After an acquisition that didn’t go well, Doug Grane and his brother abandoned that growth strategy and instead decided to grow Central States Trucking organically. And their goal in 2003 was ambitious to double the sales of their family business by 2007.
Buying businesses might be a quicker and easier way to grow, but Grane has steered the company into the fast-growth lane by an aggressive sales effort to customers. And that strategy succeeded Central States posted 2006 revenue of nearly $36 million and this year, Grane expects to hit the $42 million mark double the company’s 2003 sales.
Smart Business spoke with Grane about the importance of recognizing who you can’t do business with, why one state-of-the-company address isn’t enough and the value of thinking like an underdog.
Q: What is the most challenging aspect of fast growth?
Some companies may have an inclination to overpromise and underdeliver. Our emphasis was to tell the customers what we could do, keep our promises, be on time, work with them on solutions and get better every single day.
We couldn’t become complacent. Just because we had success the month before didn’t mean we were guaranteed success the next month. I can’t tell you how many phone calls that we get from companies that want to do business with us. But we’re very candid with them. We say we’re really not a good fit at this time.
So as much as you might want to accept new business, part of the key to growing over the long term is to partner with the people that you want to partner with and for the right reasons.
Q: What are the most critical elements in sustaining successful rapid growth?
It’s your people; it’s making sure that your people know and understand what you expect of them. Be clear with people in terms of their reviews; communicate the values of the company tirelessly.
Let them know what your culture stands for. For Central States, it’s safety, simplicity, speed and solutions. I tried to come up with words that everyone would remember. Every once in awhile, I’ll quiz an employee on what the four values are, and they do pretty good. Our values mean something to them.
Q: How do you keep your employees focused on growth?
I give a state-of-the-company address to everyone in the company. I give them feedback on where we were for the past year as compared to our goals, what we focused on in the past year and what we want to focus on for the upcoming year.
Everyone in the company understands what our vision for growth is and how we’re going to get there. It’s not just a once-a-year state of the company. I also do it mid-year, so in the middle of summer, I let them know what our plan was at the start of the year. I give them some feedback in the middle of the year because 12 months is a long time for people to keep everyone focused and on track.
It’s a chance for me to get all of our employees focused on what our goals are for the year and how we’re best going to be able to take care of our customers and meet their needs.
Q: What are the dangers of fast growth?
We know that one of the biggest pitfalls for a company that is growing rapidly is resting on its laurels and becoming complacent. In one of the state-of-the-company presentations a couple of years back, the theme was ‘Think Like an Underdog,’ and this was the theme for our 25th anniversary year.
How do you get a company that’s doing well not to rest on its laurels and not say, ‘We’ve been around for 25 years, we’ll be around another 25 years?’ I said, ‘You know what? The marketplace right now is Darwinian it’s survival of the fittest; it’s adapt or get left behind. I said, ‘Even though we’re 25 years old, think like we’re in business for the first year.’
So how do you communicate that edge? How you live that on a daily basis is you remind them not to take anything for granted. We’ve still got to earn the profits for the company.
Q: How do you keep growth from overwhelming your ability to keep up?
The key thing for a mid-sized family business is we’re looking for the long-term relationships. Maybe sometimes with a public company, you’ll read how they’ll jack up quarterly earnings, or you’ll get a CEO who will pursue a very short-term strategy to jack up the stock price.
Even though you’re in the fast lane, you want to focus on being of long-term value to your customers. If you ever feel at any given time that this rapid growth isn’t working, have a cooling-off period; there’s nothing wrong with that. You owe it to your customers that you already have to take care of them.
If you’re growing too fast where you’re not taking care of your current customers the top line can go up and down. It doesn’t have to be growing by double digits every year.
HOW TO REACH: Central States Trucking Co., www.cstruck.com
Since becoming president of TTX Co. in 2000 and being named CEO in 2001, Reardon says his leadership of the $1.2 billion railroad equipment provider has shifted from an autocracy to a much more collaborative approach, emphasizing delegation and based on a strong foundation of trust, respect and a desire to push leadership and decision-making to all levels of his organization.
“I came into this position wanting to achieve certain things but subconsciously did so with a style that has clearly evolved since then,” Reardon says. “The style with which I came in wasn’t nearly as good as the style with which I manage now. Admittedly, I came in somewhat autocratically, as I think a lot of new CEOs do, and it’s out of fear of failure. That fear causes you to be, as fear typically does, rather myopic. You begin to live under the illusion that you’ve got all the right answers, and you can’t accept a diversion from that.”
Since unleashing the power of his employees’ experience and talent, Reardon says the new and innovative ideas that have resulted have been truly remarkable. And while the potential benefits of collaboration are probably obvious to most, Reardon says what keeps many business leaders from cashing in is their general reluctance to surrender some amount of control over their organization. After all, it is the CEO who is responsible for a company’s overall performance, and it is he or she who ultimately will be held accountable.
“I think a lot of CEOs want to do it, but they’re afraid of letting go,” Reardon says. “Letting go can make you insecure because you’ve got somebody telling you, ‘I want to spend $10 million here, and here’s what I believe this company can derive from it.’ It’s a case of how much you trust that individual. You’re making some big judgments here. They’re going to have long-term impacts on the company. At the same time, you can’t bring this talent in the door that has everything you want, that would be a find in anybody’s top management, stifle it and think you’re going to keep them there. Not for very long. Not with the kind of people I want.
“You get far more vision and creativity when you unleash the minds that you’ve hired and let them explore and let them make a few mistakes. You really begin to unleash the power of their experience, their talent, their passion and their work ethic. Before you know it, incredible, new ideas that never were yours tend to bubble up to the surface that make you say, ‘Wow.’”
Under Reardon’s leadership, TTX has increased its fleet capacity by 33 percent and made more than $3 billion in capital improvements. And though he says his leadership style is still a work in progress, one thing he has undoubtedly improved upon by leaps and bounds is his tendency to grant his team the authority to make their own decisions.
“As you become more mature and grow, you say, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t the way things should be — I’ve hired a lot of talent and I’m telling them how to do their job?’” Reardon says. “That’s backwards.”
Building the team
Because much of a leader’s ability to delegate stems from his ability to trust those to whom he is granting authority, Reardon says the first step in creating a truly collaborative environment is hiring and retaining people who can handle that responsibility.
“My immediate predecessor, Ray Burton, used to say, ‘A good CEO should work hard to put himself out of a job,’” Reardon says. “When you reflect on that, it’s actually correct. Now, it’s kind of like seeking perfection. You’ll never get there, but you keep working at it and working at it, and when you have the mindset that you can rely upon, then you can begin to let them go.”
But what is the “right” kind of employee around which to build a collaborative environment? Reardon has had the good fortune to have hired every one of his direct reports. Though the members of his executive team might represent a diverse set of backgrounds and skill sets, what they share is an attribute that Reardon describes as “judgmental experience,” a quality critical to an individual’s aptitude for handling responsibility.
“In each of their fields, I look for what kind of experience they have, and coupled with that experience, what their sense of judgment is like and how they have exercised it over the years,” Reardon says. “It’s one thing to suggest that you want people with a certain amount of technical expertise — that goes without saying. But equally as important is their sense of judgment in that expertise and how much of an opportunity have they had and how much responsibility have they had with which to exercise that judgment experience. That is critical because as all of us grow older and hopefully wiser, you want to develop a bank of wisdom, and you get there by exercising judgment.”
For example, one area in which Reardon believes many leaders struggle to make decisions is information technology. Whether they pass on a golden opportunity because they don’t fully understand its potential benefits or they make a blind decision that comes back to burn them, Reardon says an overall lack of understanding on the part of leaders complicates the decision-making process. As such, he considers himself lucky to have an experienced and knowledgeable head of IT who is trusted to make the appropriate decisions.
“I certainly don’t know what he knows about IT, and I never will,” Reardon says. “But I trust him, and I understand him well enough that I will bet on his judgmental experience, and when you can trust somebody’s judgmental experience, it’s huge.”
Of course, having the right team members in place is only half the battle. Reardon says the key to keeping them there is using communication as a means of understanding the desires and motivations of each individual. As part of TTX’s manager evaluation process, each manager has an annual meeting with every one of his of her subordinates that focuses exclusively on discussing what that person’s desires and aspirations are.
“There’s no way you’re going to find out what motivates somebody and how you’re going to retain them unless you at least talk to them and find out,” Reardon says. “You really have to figure out not only what you want out of somebody, but you also have to figure out what makes this person tick. How do they derive their satisfaction in life? What really turns them on? Professionally? Culturally? Valuewise?”
Creating the atmosphere
Creating an atmosphere conducive to collaboration starts at the top, and Reardon says an environment such as the one he’s helped to create at TTX is based on a mutual respect in which a leader’s respect for his subordinates is perhaps even more important than theirs for him.
“We’ve all seen the boss that says, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, you idiot,’” Reardon says. “That won’t get you very much traction. The fear of disrespect, if you will, can close off an awful lot of constructive thought. Conversely, creating the atmosphere where all ideas are welcome, when you apply that notion to the fact that you’ve recruited some top-notch talent, that atmosphere is critical. When people see that, you really begin to get a free flow of creative thinking, and that is the single biggest atmospheric catalyst.”
Making an organization of individuals comfortable with contributing its ideas and thoughts is sometimes a monumental task. Reardon says at TTX, by making sure to keep plenty of white space on his calendar, utilizing an open-door policy and routinely sitting in and offering his thoughts at department meetings, he has, over time, created an informality of communication that he says has helped encourage constructive dialogue among several layers of the organization. Additionally, each quarter Reardon hosts a lunch in the executive conference room attended by 12 members of the company, who are not his direct reports, during which the employees are encouraged to discuss the pros and cons of working at TTX. Reardon says the lunch is just one means he uses to connect with the whole of the organization.
“It kind of helps me keep my finger on a pulse that I otherwise would not be able to reach,” Reardon says. “The only way you can do that is to spend face time with people, whether it’s our hourly associates or whether you’re out on the docks in Portland or Seattle or whether you’re here at headquarters, walking around, poking your head in people’s offices, asking them about a project that you might already know all the answers to, but it’s a forum to initiate dialogue, to simply spend face time. People begin to open up more to you.
“You have to let people know that you want their ideas, and that you’re not going to disrespect them by dismissing an idea out of hand, even though it may not be the right idea. What they need to understand is that you respect their experience and their judgment and you may adopt it or you may not. If you decide not to, they know you will provide them a thorough understanding of why not. Similarly, if you do adopt it, you will do so with the idea that you understand the wisdom of it.”
While collaboration certainly entails allowing members of a team to contribute to an organization’s overall direction, in the case of TTX, it also involves a leader who is prepared to delegate. In doing so, Reardon draws a distinction between granting responsibility and granting actual authority. Managers are responsible for their respective departments, but they also need to have the authority to make the necessary decisions within their jurisdictions.
“You really need to let that department head know they’re the captain of their own ship and not only are they entitled to make those decisions, but they must make them,” Reardon says. “It’s critical that CEOs let go. Otherwise you stifle the very creativity you sought, unwittingly in most cases.”
While fostering collaboration at the top of an organizational chart is one thing, Reardon adds that to truly tap the intellectual capital of an entire organization, decision-making must be pushed down to all levels.
“One of my pet peeves about organizations is there is a culture that develops after a fashion that says, ‘Only at a certain level are you capable of making decisions,’” Reardon says. “I think all of us know there’s a certain level of fallacy in that. You’ve got enthusiastic, properly ambitious minds, and they thirst for responsibility.”
The obstacles to creating a collaborative organization are far overshadowed by the potential rewards of doing so. Reardon says the responsibility of a leader is to do his part by formulating a mission and trusting, with some oversight, that it will be carried out.
“The role of a CEO is, with a lot of input, to set the course, delegate responsibly and stay abreast of the developments but disappear from the details,” Reardon says. “Let your best minds do their jobs.”
HOW TO REACH: TTX Co., (312) 853-3223 or www.ttx.com
The American Medical Association defines health literacy as the ability to read, understand and use health information to make appropriate health care decisions and follow instructions for treatment. Adults with low health literacy do not grasp a lot of the health information that they read. This problem not only puts employees at risk for health problems but also adds up to billions of dollars in health care costs each year.
“Studies show that people with literacy problems have trouble following prescription directions and controlling chronic health conditions,” said Bill Berenson, senior vice president of Aetna's Small and Middle Market Business for the North Central Region. “They are also more likely to be hospitalized for complications and other health issues. Improving health literacy will help employees make better informed health decisions and communicate more effectively with their doctors — key factors that can have a significant impact on health outcomes and costs.”
Smart Business spoke with Berenson about raising health literacy awareness.
Why is health literacy a problem?
Medical journals state that most health materials are written at the 10th-grade reading level. Yet, literacy experts say that a fifth-grade reading level is ideal. This gap causes significant problems for people with low literacy skills.
How many people have difficulty reading and understanding health information?
According to the Institute of Medicine, more than 90 million people have trouble understanding health materials. That means more than half of all adults are more likely to be hospitalized, make mistakes with their medications, have trouble following their doctor’s treatment plan and get less-regular preventive care — all of which put an employee’s health at risk.
Who is most at risk for problems associated with poor health literacy?
At some point, most individuals will encounter health information they cannot understand. Even well-educated people with strong reading and writing skills might have trouble comprehending a medical form or doctor’s instructions. Older people, immigrants and those with low incomes are disproportionately more likely to have trouble reading and understanding health-related information.
How do people cope with low health literacy?
People with low health literacy are often embarrassed or ashamed to admit they have difficulty understanding health information and resources. They use well-practiced coping mechanisms that effectively mask their problem. These might include saying they forgot their eyeglasses to avoid filling out forms or questionnaires, laughing about being forgetful when asked about their medical condition or treatments, or nodding politely when the doctor speaks, without asking any questions.
What are some steps people can take to improve their health literacy skills?
Employers should encourage employees to look for reliable online resources to educate themselves about health topics. When visiting their doctor, people should take time to ask questions when they do not understand test results, instructions or other health information. While some doctors might fear lengthy appointments, research shows that if allowed to speak freely, the average patient would initially speak for less than two minutes.
What is health benefits literacy?
Health benefits literacy is the ability to understand and navigate health insurance options and benefits, and it is essential to helping employees become well-informed health care consumers. Increasing health benefits literacy provides a pivotal opportunity for employers wanting to increase the adoption rate of increasingly popular consumer-directed health plans. Working in partnership, health benefits providers and employers should offer educational materials in easy-to-understand formats, along with credible health information and tools that support informed decision-making.
How can employers help employees improve their health literacy and health literacy benefits skills?
Employers can purchase products to help employees improve their skills, such as tool kits designed to help employers engage, educate and motivate employees. These can include materials like employee letters, fact sheets, quizzes and newsletter articles that employers can share with employees. Employers can also direct employees to online resources that provide more information about their health benefits and financial choices. One site to visit is www.PlanforYourHealth.com, which helps people understand and make the most of their health benefits.
BILL BERENSON is senior vice president of Aetna's Small and Middle Market Business for the North Central Region. Reach him at (312) 928-3323 or email@example.com.
As Richard L. Keyser will tell you, turning around a company is no easy task — particularly when the company is already successful.
“I attended a seminar a few years ago, and the title of it was ‘Turning Around a Successful Company’; that’s probably one of the hardest business jobs you can undertake,” says Keyser, chairman and CEO of W.W. Grainger Inc. “When a company is in crisis, it’s pretty easy to stimulate change, but when things are going pretty well, it’s much more difficult to get the attention of the organization.”
For its part, it’s not as though Grainger is hurting. Founded in 1927 and publicly traded since 1967, the Lake Forest-based distributor of facility maintenance products hit the $1 billion sales mark in 1984, $5 billion in 2004 and posted record revenue of $5.9 billion in 2006, while expanding operations throughout North America and, recently, into China. That’s not to say, however, that there wasn’t room for improvement.
“We have been nationwide for a long time, but frankly, our positioning in a number of the major markets had gotten stale,” says Keyser, who was elected CEO in 1995 and chairman in 1997. “When you have an organization that’s been enormously successful, it can easily become very inward-looking and lose touch with customer priorities and begin to march to its own drummer.”
In an effort to maintain focus on customer needs and continue to build on its success, during what Keyser describes as “the depths of the post-9/11 recession,” Grainger embarked on an initiative to increase domestic market share by systemically re-examining its positioning in the nation’s top markets.
“We undertook a reassessment, city by city, of our whole presence,” Keyser says. “That includes, ‘Do we have enough branches? Are they in the right places? Are they the right size? Are they well-enough merchandised? Do we have proper sales representation to cover the market?’ We’ve dubbed it ‘market expansion’ because, in almost every case, it results in a fair amount more square footage in the market, it results in some new branches, some relocated branches and, in a few cases, some branch closings.”
The market expansion initiative, just one aspect of an overall growth strategy, has already contributed positively to Grainger’s branch-based sales growth, and by investing in infrastructure, strengthening customer relationships and communicating the strategy throughout the organization, all indications that point to that growth continuing.
Investing in infrastructure
Before any growth strategy can be executed, Keyser says one must first lay the proper groundwork.
“As most people know, you’ve got to build the foundation before you build the house,” Keyser says. “Systemically, it doesn’t work if you don’t.”
Because building the foundation for growth can sometimes be a massive and painful undertaking, the decision to do so can be a difficult one to make. As a facility maintenance products distributor, it is imperative that Grainger’s customers have what they need when they need it. As such, creating the support structure included investing in a Voice-over Internet Protocol phone system, re-engineering its distribution network, expanding an already massive product line, integrating multiple market channels and increasing the size of the sales force.
Today, Grainger is able to provide same-day or next-day delivery of any of more than 350,000 products to virtually the entire country.
“It was a complete re-engineering of our back room with a couple hundred million dollars of investment,” Keyser says. “It’s a bit like changing the tires on your car. You’ve got to do it, and you have to do it because if you don’t, you’re inviting people in and saying, ‘Hey, come on in and try our lousy service.’ That may work for the first quarter, but after that, you may not see them again.”
Because, in many cases, the products Grainger provides are not necessarily central to its customers’ businesses, Keyser says it is all the more important that the company’s 1.6 million customers not be hassled while dealing with something they’re really just trying to get off their desks.
“A service failure is the worst possible thing that can happen in our business,” Keyser says. “We have lots and lots of customers, and many of them actually visit us infrequently, even though they like us a lot. So if we have a service failure, it can take a very long time before that customer realizes that we fixed that problem. Systemically, the strongest thing we can do is to have very high and gradually improving levels of service.”
Moving forward, Keyser says he now considers the market-by-market evaluation an evergreen program that will extend far beyond its original plan, which focused on Grainger’s 25 largest markets. Additionally, in order to better monitor the success of the program in improving service to customers, markets where Grainger’s operations have already been tweaked will be revisited and readjusted where necessary.
“There are many more cities beyond the top 25 where we require the same kind of reassessment, and by the time we get to the end of the list, it will be time to look at the first ones all over again,” Keyser says. “That’s probably where we might not have been as aggressive in the past as we should have been, and we’re going to have to allow that to happen going forward.”
Being there for the customer
Fostering customer relationships must be proactive, not reactive. As such, gone are the days when a sales representative could simply drop off a catalog and wait for a phone call. Rather, Keyser says it is a necessity that employees familiarize themselves with customers’ businesses to the extent that they can anticipate client needs.
“The only way you can really help a customer is to help them grow their sales or lower their costs or expenses and lower their investment,” Keyser says. “Understanding at a given point in time what those customers’ priorities are is essential, and the only way you can do that is to be there.”
Truly being there for customers is impossible with a sales force spread too thin. While it might be intuitive to assume expanding market share would mean more clients for each of Grainger’s salespeople, in fact, the opposite is true. Since 2002, Grainger has increased its number of sales representatives by 70 percent while lowering the average workload from around 250 to 35 clients per representative over the same period. As a result, salespeople spend more time with each customer, allowing them to build multiple relationships within each client organization. Keyser says the results are apparent.
“Especially with our larger customers, there are many people in a facility who may be buying our kind of stuff,” Keyser says. “They might not all go through one purchasing agent or one individual. So we need multiple relationships with a given customer, and the only way we can do that is to empower and enable our salespeople to spend more time with a customer, and that suggests fewer clients. It does work. The more focused we get our people, the better we do.”
While maintaining focus on customers’ needs is crucial at all times, Keyser says doing so during times of growth and change requires paying extra attention to what customers are thinking, how well they are being served and how they can be served better.
“Maintaining continuity of customer relationships as things change is doubly important,” Keyser says. “Because quite often for us, the needs customers might have that we can fulfill can be somewhat infrequent, maintaining top-of-mind awareness in between those occasions is an ongoing challenge. The only way we can do that is to be there.”
Building consensus around strategy
Regardless of the efficiency of your infrastructure or coziness of your customer relations, no plan can get off the ground without employees who are aware of and buy in to the direction that the organization is taking.
“It’s always an important challenge to keep employees aligned with what you’re trying to do as an organization,” Keyser says. “That takes lots of communication and lots of training to make sure that the employees’ needs, as well as the company’s needs, are well taken care of.”
Keyser says communicating a vision and strategy and creating alignment behind it requires a multifaceted approach that, on an ongoing basis, utilizes many different vehicles, such as an employee publication, the company intranet, various employee training programs, etc.
“It’s on multiple fronts,” Keyser says. “It’s using the organization’s structure to communicate. But also, particularly with today’s technology, there is great opportunity to do a lot of direct communication through various types of media and electronics to have people more directly engaged as you go forward.”
A helpful tool for Keyser in building consensus around Grainger’s market expansion strategy has been identifying influential positions in the organization, encouraging those individuals to buy in to the strategy and making them, in effect, cheerleaders for the cause.
“Getting the really key people in the organization to buy in and become zealots goes a long way,” Keyser says.
In doing so, Keyser says it is important that those individuals have a sense of participation in the development of the company’s direction. Because Grainger’s growth strategy is based in large part on adjusting the company’s presence in different markets across the country, its key group of individuals included local management, which was empowered to help develop, along with a core planning group, the repositioning strategy within their own markets. As a result, management at the local level is committed to and accountable for making the plan a successful reality.
“(Each market’s plan) will be consistent with what we’re trying to do, but it will be uniquely tailored to their market,” Keyser says. “It will be a much better solution than we would get if we just tried to dictate it to them. They own it and coupled with that are their commitments to the kind of results it’s going to produce.”
To further familiarize the organization with company strategy, once a year, Grainger holds a field meeting with about 4,000 employees, during which case studies are presented that feature video interviews with actual customers outlining what Grainger did well and what could have been done better. E-learning programs are utilized on an ongoing basis for sales and operations training. A branch auditing system is in place that allows representatives from different branches to critique the operations of other branches, offering suggestions and sharing best practices across the organization.
Regardless of how information is presented, Keyser says the goal of any training program is the same.
“There are all kinds of training,” Keyser says, “but at the end of the day, the soft part of training is, ‘What do we really want the customer to experience and how do we use the tools that we have to make that happen?’”
HOW TO REACH: W.W. Grainger Inc., (888) 361-8649 or www.grainger.com
For John D. Sterling, CEO of Synch-Solutions, being a leader that people want to follow starts with having integrity. Add to that constant and consistent communication, and Sterling has created a formula that he says keeps his employees engaged and eager to continue their careers at Synch-Solutions, a provider of management consulting and tech services.
“Our cultural development is consistent with communication,” Sterling says. “We want to make sure that our employees know that we care about them. We care about the work they do, we care about their quality of life, and we care about their families.”
With Synch-Solutions, posting annual revenue of approximately $24 million, Sterling’s commitment to his staff seems to be paying off.
Smart Business spoke to Sterling about recruiting top talent, organizational DNA and why a leader’s fingerprints should be all over his or her organization.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
I would use the term ‘managed entrepreneurialism’ because as a small organization and especially a professional services firm, our assets are our people. We need to get the smartest, most talented people that we can attract, recruit and retain.
In attracting that talent, it’s usually very senior, very experienced talent. My style is to include those individuals in on decisions and make sure that I’m communicating my vision to my executive staff and being very cooperative from a communications perspective.
The benefit to the company is that we’ve created an environment where everyone feels that they are contributing, which they are. They also feel that they have a voice in some of the directional elements of the organization, so we get a lot of inclusion, and we get a lot of innovative ideas because not only do we have a diverse organization, out of that diversity comes very innovative ideas.
Q: How do employees react to that style?
When an employee knows that their idea will be socialized, fully vetted and considered as one of the options for a solution or a strategic initiative, it puts them in a position of power. It also gives them the heads up that they need to be extremely responsible in performing their due diligence on whatever ideas or initiatives that they are going to propose or promote.
It does put the accountability on them, it empowers them, but they also know that because of this culture that they have to do their homework and come well prepared to present their ideas, the business cases for them, as well as the return on investment. Because of those aforementioned items, our team is much more sophisticated in an entrepreneurial manner in terms of promoting their ideas.
Q: How do you recruit the brightest, most talented employees?
Today, highly skilled, highly qualified professionals want to know where an organization is headed, how we’re going to get there and what is going to be their individual contribution to that journey.
It begins with a vision, and then through a strategy down to a connection point with the employee, from the vision and strategy to how do they impact the employee. I’ve been pretty successful in connecting those data points, and it’s extremely important to make that connection.
Q: Has it been difficult to maintain your culture during your growth?
We have put some foundational elements in place to maintain a healthy culture and work environment. That’s everything from our HR director, who keeps tabs on the diversity of our organization, through other HR initiatives to ensure that we do maintain a culture that is conducive to, and built around, teamwork and team-building.
Having said that, as we’ve grown, yes, it has been a little difficult to maintain the exact culture, but I don’t think we want to. Some of the culture needs to be constant, and some of the culture is going to be reflective of the individuals that we bring into leadership roles. It’s a hybrid.
As you grow, a part of your culture does change, but it’s the operational elements of your culture. The DNA of our culture is largely due to my leadership and the characteristics that I possess.
Within any corporation that you look at, from very large organizations to small ones, if the CEO is actively engaged, the organization is going to take on that personality. It is the responsibility of the CEO to set that direction and set that bar so that the rest of the employees know that it’s not business at all costs; there’s an integrity that has to be encouraged on an organization.
Integrity, honesty, hard work and having an entrepreneurial mindset are some of the things that we do. But it doesn’t matter what the company is; if that CEO is worth their weight in gold, they’re going to have their fingerprints on the organization’s DNA and culture, and that can be directly mapped back to the success or failure of that company’s ability to grow.
HOW TO REACH: Synch-Solutions, (312) 252-3700 or www.synch-solutions.com
Since 2002, Larry Andrus has nurtured and guided a talented, diverse and experienced group of professionals at Trivalent Group Inc.
His planning has consistently been one step ahead. In 2002, Trivalent LAN Concepts and Remex Corp. were two independent organizations that were facing a changing economy. Under Andrus’ direction, Trivalent Group was formed to bring these companies together.
In 2004, three more companies were added to the fold.
Some of the innovations that make Trivalent unique from the competition are: providing a bundled solution that combines product solutions, managed services and data communications circuits; Trivalent Capital, which provides financing for the bundled solutions, enabling a one-price solution for customers; and Andrus’ involvement in a national CEO organization, which allows the company to take advantage of knowledge from noncompeting companies.
Trivalent has effectively used both customers and vendors to provide objective input. Some of the tools the company has used are customer surveys, memberships in nonprofit groups and participating in vendor group associations.
Employee input is also important to Andrus. He introduced programs such as Lunch with Larry, a monthly open discussion with various team members on a rotating basis, and monthly management meetings with agendas and action items.
Andrus has successfully repositioned Trivalent Group to strategically partner with its clients to either take the complexity out of technology or take over the technology completely.
HOW TO REACH: Trivalent Group Inc., www.trivalentgroup.com or (616) 301-6400